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Gaudenzio Ferrari, attr. to
Nativity , Virgin Mary , St. Joseph , Jesus , Shepherds , Angels
This is thought to be the oldest chapel within the Bethlehem Complex, which houses Chapels Five through Nine and is likewise among the oldest buildings at Varallo. The alcove, or grotto, that houses the three figures is designed to mimic the arched niche inside the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is venerated as the actual location of Christ's birth. Early guidebooks describe an inscription that was installed by Caimi himself in order to emphasize the chapel's authenticity: "This place is in all ways similar to that of Bethlehem, where the Virgin gave birth to her divine Son." The staircases on either side of the niche at Varallo imitate similar staircases at the original site, which pilgrims use to access the subterranean chapel. At Varallo, however, only one of the staircases is functional; the staircase on the viewer's left is an architectural illusion leading to a small window. The terracotta sculptures of Mary and Joseph inside the niche are believed to have been modeled by Gaudenzio Ferrari between 1514 and 1520. It is unusual for the figures at Varallo to be noticeably smaller than life-sized, as these are. The figures' size suggests that the niche was built first according to the dimensions of the Bethlehem chapel, the sculptures may have been added years later. Ferrari's earliest works for Varallo were carved in wood, such as the figures in the Sepulcher Chapel (1491) and the Madonna Dormiente under the high altar in the Sanctuary (1498). These figures, along with the Virgin and Child in Chapel Nine (1515 - 1517), are among Gaudenzio's earliest works in terracotta at Varallo and as such mark an important transition in his working methods at the Sacro Monte. The original sculpture of the infant in this chapel was stolen in 1852 and replaced later that same year by the existing work, which is made of wood. Giovanni Longhetti carved the figure based on a model by Giuseppe Antonini (1833 - 1889), who was a professor at Varallo's art school, the Scuola Barolo. The statues were all restored in 1973 - 1974 and again in 2006 - 2007. A layer of blue fresco was removed from the walls of the niche in 1969, revealing the stone wall we see behind the figures today. It is unclear whether conservators removed the fresco because they had determined it was not original to the scene, because it was damaged, or for some other reason. The remaining frescoes lining the curve of the arch, outside the wooden frame and metal grille that house the figures, are attributed to the school of Gaudenzio Ferrari and dated to the early Cinquecento, as are the paintings in the semicircular niche below the group. The marble star inlaid in the floor of the niche recalls a silver star in the floor of the Bethlehem Chapel. The star that hangs in the lantern above this chapel seems to be made of wood. / Varallo was the first Sacro Monte in Northern Italy. The collection of chapels on the hilltop overlooking Varallo was established by Bernardino Caimi (before 1450 - 1499 or 1500) as a way of recreating the sights and experiences of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He organized the chapels according to their Holy Land geography and incorporated architectural details from the pilgrimage churches corresponding to each scene. Caimi chose Varallo to be the site of his New Jerusalem in 1481, he received papal permission to begin collecting donations in 1486, and he is believed to have overseen the project from 1491, when the first chapel was finished, until his death. Different writers have counted each of these dates as the year of the Sacro Monte founding. Many of the early chapels were decorated by Gaudenzio Ferrari (c. 1480 - 1546), who was born nearby and gained a reputation during his lifetime as one of the leading painters in Lombardy. Saint Carlo Borromeo (1538 - 1584) visited the Sacro Monte multiple times while he was Archbishop of Milan (1564 - 1584). Carlo and his contemporaries implemented new policies to clarify Catholic doctrine and structure spiritual practices in Milan after the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563). Carlo Bascapè (1550 - 1615), Saint Carlo's close friend and the Bishop of Novara, personally oversaw a building campaign to reorganize the chapels at Varallo and restructure the pilgrimage experience according to the ideals of the Counter-Reformation. These changes were largely based on designs by Galeazzo Alessi (1512 - 1572), which are collected and preserved in a manuscript called the Libro dei Misteri (1565 - 1569) in Varallo's Biblioteca Civica. Construction continued throughout the first half of the seventeenth-century, led primarily by Giovanni d'Enrico the Younger (c. 1559 - 1644) and his family workshop. Beginning in 1609, d'Enrico also supervised the construction of the new Basilica, which is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin. The Basilica was consecrated in 1649 and the old church, or Chiesa Vecchia, was demolished in 1773, but the Chiesa Nuova was not finished until the façade was added in 1891 - 1896.
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